Saturday’s awful 4-1 loss to Watford sealed the fate of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, with the club announcing the managers departure early on Sunday morning.
For most fans, this announcement was met with conflicting emotions; on the one hand Manchester United have been in obvious free-fall since the loss to Young Boys in the Champions League back in September and it was obvious that the managers tactics had taken the team as far as they could.
On the other hand, Solskjaer is a legend of the club and has carried himself with class even when the results were bad on the pitch, he has been a model professional and has never hidden his love for the club. Solskjaer steadied the ship and more so besides, here are five key positives from Solskjaer’s reign that United can build upon in the future.
Clear out of ‘dead wood’
When Solskjaer became permanent manager of United one of the most obvious issues within the club was that it was overloaded with players on huge wages who were either not good enough or did not want to be there.
During Solskjaer’s reign there was an obvious shift towards being more ruthless and selling players who did not fit the playing style and were not good enough. The sale of Alexis Sanchez to Inter Milan was the best example of this, firstly the winger, who was on a reported £560,000 a week, was sent on loan to Milan during the 2019/20 season, then it was announced in August of 2020 that a deal had been reached for the permanent transfer of Sanchez, as reported by Sky Sports.
The ruthlessness was apparent in the way that the deal included Sanchez and the club wavering the final two years of the players contract, saving the club a reported £40 million in wages, with the player receiving a ‘small pay off’ of between £5 million and £7 million, as reported by Sky Sports.
During Solskjaer’s reign fans also saw players like Marcos Rojo and Matteo Darmian leave the club to relatively little fanfare, players who simply were no longer good enough to play for Manchester United. However, in all of these deals the players were treated with obvious respect and there was no media circus fuelled by the manager, the same thing could not be said of United’s previous manager Jose Mourinho.
The departures of Sanchez, Darmian, Rojo, Chris Smalling and more recently Daniel James not only made room for other players in the squad to get playing time but also took wages off the wage bill to sign other players or give new contracts to players who deserved them. The way that Solskjaer handled this specific job should not be overlooked and it has undoubtedly been a positive for United and will continue to be after he leaves.
It is not an over exaggeration to state that the signing of Bruno Fernandes from Sporting Lisbon in January of 2020 changed the trajectory of the team. Before his arrival, Manchester United were lacking creativity with the manager relying on Andreas Pereira and Jesse Lingard for creative output, both of whom were not fulling this duty to a substantial level.
United desperately needed a technically gifted creative midfielder who could contribute with goals and assists, and with Bruno Fernandes they found just that.
When the signing was announced Solskjaer stated that his team had been ‘tracking Bruno for many months’ proving that this was a thought out signing and one that Solskjaer had personally pushed for, knowing the impact he would have on the team.
Fernandes has not let the manager down, since signing for United the midfielder has made 97 appearances, scoring 44 goals and contributing 33 assists. These are freakish attacking numbers, and even they cannot fully portray just how important Fernandes has become to United, perhaps the fact he has won back to back Sir Matt Busby Player of the Year awards, in his only two seasons at the club, go a bit further in portraying his importance.
In Fernandes, Solskjaer provided United with a player who will go on to achieve great things at the club, even in the managers absence. In years to come, Manchester United fans will look back and thank Solskjaer for being the man who fought to bring the Portuguese midfielder to the club.
A change in the culture
United fans know that before the appointment of Solskjaer the team was heading on a downwards spiral. Not only were the performances bad, but constant media talk surrounding the club created an extremely toxic atmosphere for the players, staff, and fans alike.
Mourinho’s managerial style meant he had fallen out with players he felt did not give their all for the club, players such as Paul Pogba and Luke Shaw felt particularly hard done by.
Solskjaer came in and put his arm around the players, made them excited to play football again and constantly backed them in press conferences and interviews, even when they had put in bad performances. This ingrained a more positive culture into the club, and one that replicated the days of Sir Alex Ferguson who often fiercely protected his players.
It is certain that this change in atmosphere was part of the reason for United’s stellar form in the early period of Solskjaer’s reign, but it also means that now, even with Solskjaer gone, there is no longer a toxic atmosphere at the club and the team, even with horrendous results and performances recently, appear as together as ever, something that arguably would not have been the case under previous managers.
The evolution of Mason Greenwood
In contrast to Mourinho, Solskjaer consistently promoted youth during his time at the club, promoting players such as Brandon Williams and Dean Henderson to the first team. However, Solskjaer’s handling of young talent Mason Greenwood is something that Manchester United fans will always be grateful to the Norwegian for.
Solskjaer did not throw Greenwood into the first team, even when it was clear from his numbers in the youth team that he was an immense talent. Instead he adopted a ease in approach giving the youngster minutes as a substitute in the 2018/19 season, with the striker scoring his first senior goal in a win against Astana early in the 2019/20 season, as reported by Sky Sports.
This approach meant that the then 17 year old was not overwhelmed by the pressure and could instead get a feel for the level the would be playing at.
This approach has worked wonders and Greenwood is now a solidified player in the first team squad, even at the still very young age of 20. Under Solskjaer the Academy graduate made 119 appearances for the club, scoring 33 and assisting 11, these numbers are fantastic for a player still so young and playing in a team with expectations as high as United’s.
Greenwood is a part of the legacy Solskjaer leaves behind, without him, who knows how the development of the youngster would have been handled. It is very likely that without his management fans would not be witnessing the great player we see today, it was Solskjaer who gave him his chance.
He leaves behind a better squad than the one he inherited
Finally, the signings he made as a manager will leave a lasting positive impact on the team, with some of United’s best signings since Ferguson’s retirement occurring under the Norwegian.
Solskjaer signed a mix of experienced players who can fit in straight away and make an impact such as Cristiano Ronaldo, Bruno Fernandes and Raphael Varane as well as young, exciting players who could go on to be some of the best in the world in their positions if handled correctly, including Amad Diallo and Jadon Sancho.
There is no doubt that the squad of players Solskjaer leaves behind have the ability to win trophies, if the right manager comes in, the same could not be said of the team Solskjaer inherited in 2018. In three years, the additions Solskjaer has made to the squad, on paper, make United genuine title challengers, it is now down to whoever is next to take this squad to the next level, one Solskjaer unfortunately could not reach.
While Solskjaer’s reign ends in misery, the manager did all he could to get the club back to where it belongs, he promoted youth, believed in his players, and brought in world class talent to take the team to the next level.
He will always be a legend for his days as a player, and now, he will be fondly remembered as the man who steadied the ship and made Manchester United fans dream again. The group of players he leaves behind can bring trophies back to United, that is a legacy to be proud of.
Written by Jennifer McCord